Monday, October 29, 2012

Census Tips - Reading the Whole Entry

US Census records are one of the first places most people start looking for family information.  These records are available through a variety of resources including paid subscriptions such as as well as through free services like

Whenever possible, try to look at the original images of census records rather than just a listing in a database because the actual record image contains a variety of information recorded for the people listed.  Each census year sought to gather specific information so you can learn a lot about your ancestors by reading all the data recorded for them in several census years.  Here are some of the things you could learn by reading the entire entry for GreatGrandfather Jones in different census years:
  • name of the street and house number where he lived (then use Google Earth to see what that address looks like today)
  • age at time of the census, month and year of birth
  • marital status including how long he had been married
  • number of births and live children of his wife
  • occupation, sometimes name of employer
  • immigration and naturalization information
  • education and literacy information
  • veteran status
  • value of real estate with references to farm schedules and slave holdings
Taking those few extra minutes to read the entire entry for an ancestor can supply information that provides a fuller picture of that individual.  After all, family history isn't just about birth and death dates, it is about the "dash", what happened during a person's life.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Love Your Library

Pursuing your interest in genealogy and family history doesn't have to be expensive when you put your local public library high on your list of resources.  Here are just a few of the free resources available at my local library.

  • Online access to Heritage Quest - I can look at census records, read digitized family histories and other genealogical and historical materials, all from my home and at my convenience.
  • Library Edition - This has just been added for use at the library.  Now anyone can access millions of records and databases without having to purchase a personal subscription.  All I need is my library card.
  • Local history materials - If you're researching family living in the area, your local library is a great place to start.
  • Genealogy reference books - From information about my Mayflower ancestors to Civil War battles and naturalization, there is such a variety available.
  • Genealogy information books - There are books available for checkout or ebook download on many topics related to your research, again free.  I can even receive circulating materials from other libraries on interlibrary loan.
  • Genealogy magazines - My library subscribes to a number of excellent periodicals filled with helpful tips and information.  I try to browse through one whenever I'm there.
  • Help -  Our local genealogical society has volunteers helping once a month in the library's genealogy collection.  Also, in visiting public libraries in other areas, I've found the library staff to be very helpful in my research.
Your public library probably has similar materials and services.  Spend some time there seeing what is available to you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Special Coffee Mug

Hanging on the mug rack in my kitchen is a gray coffee mug with a picture of basket of grapes and grape vines.  That mug was picked out 30 years ago by one of my sons as a Christmas gift for his grandmother.  (Has it really been that long ago?)  He selected that specific mug because his grandmother had a row of grape vines in her back yard, and he liked going out with her to pick grapes.  My mother loved that mug and drank her morning coffee from it for many years; today I often have an afternoon cup of tea in it.  Someday I'll pass the mug on to my son or one of his children.  Even if it only serves to hold pencils on someone's desk, I want the recipient to know the story of "Grandmother's Grape Vines", of the woman who loved her garden, and of that little boy who spied that mug at a school fundraiser.

The family stories we share can be as simple as telling about a coffee mug.  If I thought my family expected a 300-page tome of family history as the result of my hours of research, I'd be in a state of panic, but it is easy to reflect on that coffee mug.  I can write a few paragraphs, add a picture of the mug and one of my mother, putting it all in a "Family Keepsakes" scrapbook I've thinking of making.  This way, it won't be just an old coffee mug from Nana's house, it can be a connection between generations.  

Are there some small stories you want to share with your family?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heading in the Right Direction: Dates

Tip 1:  As you come across dates to record in your information, it is good practice to record them in standard format: day of the month, month, and four-digit year, 18 Oct 2012.  This way there isn't confusion as to whether something happened on April 11 or November 4 for a birth date written 4-11-52.  It is also clear that something happened in 1952 rather than 1852.

Tip 2:  Sometimes the date you locate is exact, a marriage license signed by the Justice of the Peace on September 5, 1926.  Record this fact in standard format, 5 Sept 1926.  Other times, however, a date isn't so precise.  Often census records only show a person's age at the time of the census, i.e., your uncle Jimmy Smith was listed as 17 in the 1930 census.  In this case, make use of the term circa and record his birth date as c1913 or ca1913.  Later if you find his exact birth date, you can record that date in standard format. had additional information on writing dates using standard format.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Getting Started ...

source: flickr, JakeandLindsay Sherbert's photostream
For many there comes a time when it becomes really important to us to learn and document more about our family, its history, its characters, maybe even some of its secrets.  For me, it came as I was helping my mother move into an assisted living apartment and spending time with her sorting through years of stuff at home.  For others, it might come with the passing of a loved one and the stories that had been shared.  Still others feel the urge to know once personal responsibilities change and time is available for exploring or a desire to learn more about something you overheard at the family Christmas dinner.  Regardless of your reason, you've now joined those who want to strengthen our connections with the past and share them with others.

But, gulp, how do you start?  A common sense approach is to start with what you know.  Dig out that blank journal you received years ago, pick up an extra notebook at the store, or open up a word processing document; the format isn't as important as the intent right now.

Once you have something in front of you to record data, start a page on yourself, where you were born, when, important dates and places in your life.  Next start a page for each of your parents, listing the same types of information, then try to add pages for your grandparents.  Now, add some questions to which you would love to have answers and maybe some ideas about where to find those answers.  You're actually on your way.  You have family lineage information (names, dates, places), a research plan (questions you want answered), and the beginning of a research log (where you look for answers to your questions).  Once you find an answer and record information and where you found it, you will be citing sources.  The first time you mention to a family member what you're up to, you've started to share with others.  If you've gotten this far, you're probably hooked!

I'll love reading what prompted you to start researching your family.  See, you'll be sharing already.